By: Yusuf Ashraf “Joey”
Out of the 219 countries and territories, to date Philippines ranked number 30 in terms of coronavirus confirmed cases (594,412) and deaths (12,516). In Southeast Asia, after Indonesia, Philippines has the second-highest tally of infections and deaths. Twelve months away from the pandemic, obviously our country has been failing in mitigating the rising spread of the coronavirus. Among others, this is what you get when the county’s COVID-19 Inter-Agency Task Force is being led and managed by retired military officers, bureaucrats and civil servants; and not by leading experts in public health, virology, immunology, epidemiology and the academe (on statistical models and data analytics). Moreover, when politicians have been politicizing the public health emergency crisis as a PR or publicity stunt (for political gain)instead of dealing the COVID-19 as a science to understand and to educate the public.
As a result of the IATF’s mediocrity and the local government official’s ineptitude, it is not surprising why the Philippines has ended up as the last among the Southeast Asian countries to have access to the vaccines. By its own admission – not having the financial resources to purchase the vaccines, and desperate to inoculate its people so it can bring the weakening economy back to its feet, the Duterte administration even went to the extent ofembarrassingly proposed trading our nurses, like chattels or commodities, with the United Kingdom and Germany in exchange for vaccines. In addition, in a sign of desperation, the president said last December that he would proceed to abrogate a key security pact with the United States (that allows large numbers of American troops to conduct war exercises in the Philippines) if Washington could not provide at least 20 million doses of COVID-19 vaccine. When both gambit failed, our country fell prey into the “vaccine diplomacy” of China who has been peddling in the international community its coronavirus vaccinesi.e., Sinovac, CanSino and Sinopharm.
Vaccine hungry and with no money to buy the liquid gold to inoculate at least 75% of its 108 million people, which is the average threshold to establish a “herd immunity”, the Philippines has welcomed with open arms China’s donation of the two-shot Sinovac vaccines despite its spotty data as to its safety and efficacy. Hence, on February 28, 2021, our country received its first batch of 600,000 doses of Sinovac Biotech’sCOVID-19 vaccine, called CoronaVac, and it is expecting the additional delivery of 1 million more doses this month and 25 million doses due to be delivered in batches this year. China’s donation is a tiny fraction of at least 148 million doses the government has been negotiating to secure from Western and Asian companies to vaccinate about 70 million Filipinos for free in a massive campaign funded by foreign and domestic loans.
For a moment, let’s set aside the potential national security issues in the quid quo pro that is expected out of such arrangements. Understand in the world of geopolitics nothing comes free, especially when one is dealing with China whose global hegemonic intentions and trajectory has been obvious. In these pandemic times, China and Russia (its vaccine is called Gamaleya Sputnik V) are using the vaccines that they have developed and produced in order to reconfigure the balance of power in the Indo Pacific, Southeast Asia, and even, in the Middle East, Latin America and South Africa regions. China possesses something countries desperately need and will seek to paint the vaccinesprovision as an “act of charity,” when in reality it is not. And it will make it very, very tricky for recipient governments to say no to China for anything in the future.
In contrast to Pfizer BioNTech, Moderna, Johnson and Johnson and Oxford AstraZeneca, the problem with the People’s Republic of China is that it is sharing and marketing their vaccines in vaccine-hungry countries without providing transparent, peer reviewed scientific evidence of its clinical trial data, including its research supporting their own vaccination programs in their country. In the interest of the health and safety of the Filipino people, it is absolute necessary for China to stop hiding its vaccine data. Data transparency, including design of clinical trials, trial populations, safety and efficacy considerations, is very crucial for a population where a sizeable portion are hesitant and critical of vaccines, especially the anti-vaxxers whose minds have been influenced and shaped by the vaccine disinformation they have been getting in the social media.
To make matters worse, our own government has undercut the vital role of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in thescientific and regulatory oversight of vaccines, and in this instance the Sinovac vaccine, before it could proceed to issue an Emergency Use Authorization (EUA). Understand in a pandemic, one of the agency’s highest priorities is ensuring the quality, safety and effectiveness of the vaccines, which is essential to engendering the public’s trust in vaccines.
Let’s take a closer look at the Sinovac vaccine. The Beijing-based biopharmaceutical company Sinovac is behind the CoronaVac, an inactivated vaccine. It works by using killed viral particles to expose the body’s immune system to the virus. One Chinese study published in the scientific journal, The Lancelet, only has information from the first and second phase trials of CoronaVac in China. There were only 144 participants in the phase one trial and 600 in the phase two trial (US FDA minimum requirement is 3,000). In its phase three trials, no data was provided except it said that it conducted in various countries, such as, in Turkey and Indonesia and that the vaccine was 91.25% and 65.3 % effective respectively. Researchers in Brazil initially said it was 78% effective in their clinical trials, but in January 2021 they revised that figure to 50.4%. Indeed, there is a clear discrepancy in their results.
But even before the phase three clinical trial results, just like Russia’s Sputnik V, the Sinovac vaccine was given the green light to be administered to its people in China and in other countries last June, or three months after the pandemic, which was disconcertingly way too fast! Certainly, it is unconventional, or highly irregular, to roll out and ramp up a vaccine programme before any significant data about the Phase 3 clinical trials for the inoculation had been made public or without first going through the last stage trials. Like night and day, in contrast Pfizer BioNTech and Moderna rolled out their vaccines after 9 months of robust scientific data in its 3 phases of clinical trials, which were conducted globally with more than 40,000 participants of different ages, race and ethnicity. On the other hand, Johnson and Johnson (maker of the Jannsen COVID-19 Vaccine) had their EUA approved by FDA 11 months after its global trial, which trial included the UK, South African and Brazil emerging variants. TO BE CONTINUED